Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
State Fair organizers and vendors say they have no problem with a new public health order requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter the annual event.
In fact, they said, it may actually be a draw for people who otherwise might be hesitant to attend the event, which will be held this year from Sept. 9 through Sept. 19.
The mandate, issued Tuesday, was met with criticism from two state senators on Wednesday. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, and Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, sent a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Health and Human Services Secretary David Scrase, who is also interim secretary of the state Department of Health, urging them to “remove the mandatory vaccination requirement for children” participating in the fair, and calling the vaccines “experimental.”
The senators pointed out that among the premier fair events are competitions involving youth up to age 18, who are part of 4-H and FFA projects raising animals and growing produce.
“While we understand the pressures you and other state officials are experiencing, we feel this decision was particularly careless and inconsiderate of the children and parents of our state,” they wrote. “No family should be faced with the dilemma of receiving an experimental vaccine or having their hard work be completely lost.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 358.6 million doses of vaccine have been administered throughout the United States.
The public health order allows for exemptions. People can enter the State Fairgrounds without proof of vaccination if they have documentation of a qualifying medical condition or a religious prohibition, and proof of a negative COVID test within the preceding 48 hours. In addition, all fair visitors must wear a mask when attending indoor events or exhibits.
Expo New Mexico General Manager Dan Mourning said State Fair staff is prepared to comply with all requirements of the public health order.
“It’s really not a big deal. It’s more like showing your driver’s license or a ticket to get into an event, so I don’t see it affecting us negatively,” he said. “We’re pretty efficient about moving people in and out and through the admission gates quickly.”
In 2019, the year before the pandemic forced the State Fair to go on hiatus, nearly a half million people visited.
In addition, Mourning said, the State Fair has implemented a number of safety protocols and devices. There will be increased cleaning and disinfecting of indoor spaces, incorporation of ionization technology to scrub and exchange air in barn areas, and incorporation of touchless technology and apps used for purchasing tickets and food from vendors.
State Fair vendors interviewed by the Journal say they are also onboard and have no problem with the mandate.
Gil Stewart, owner of the Native Café in Indian Village, has been serving food at the fair for 15 years. He already requires that all his employees show him proof of vaccination, “so I was already ahead of that because I wanted to make sure that there was a safe environment for people to walk into.”
Stewart said he knew of many people who have been vaccinated “but were tentative about coming to the fair and not knowing if the people surrounding them would be vaccinated or not.” The mandate answers that question and mitigates people’s apprehension, he said.
Howard Rogers of JR’s Barbeque, a presence at the State Fair for 35 years, said he believes people who have not been vaccinated will seek out a vaccination just so they can visit the State Fair.
Because the State Fair was on hiatus last year due to the pandemic, he likened the current situation to that of “grandparents who haven’t seen their grandkids in months and months and now they’re excited to visit with them.”
Amy Romero, owner of Batter Up Mini Donuts, has been serving up her sweet treats at the State Fair for 20 years. “I am totally OK with masks and showing proof of vaccination,” she said. “I think people will be more comfortable knowing that everybody around them is vaccinated, and maybe give them a reason to want to attend the fair. People are ready to get out and have some fun,” she said.
The other big visitor event coming up is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which will be held Oct. 2-10. In 2019 the fiesta recorded 866,414 visits and attracted 588 registered balloons.
It is not clear at this point if visitors will have to show proof of vaccination to be admitted, said fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity.
“The public health order is being reviewed in detail by the Balloon Fiesta board and staff as we continue preparations. … We’re going to make adjustments as needed and we’ll announce those, if there are any, over the next couple of weeks.”
Because most fiesta events are outdoors, masks are not required under the current mandate. However, COVID remains “at the very forefront of our minds,” Garrity said.
Visitors can expect to see more hand washing stations, some hospitality food service previously served indoors or in tents will now be set up outside, and special shapes balloons will be spaced out around the launch field “to disperse the crowds and minimize clustering,” Garrity said.
The fiesta also hired a licensed health care professional to serve as the public health manager and advise the fiesta board on COVID-safe practices.